XI. The Historian’s Craft

There is a lot more to being an historian than simply excavating facts.  Proper names are certainly specific, but what people did and why they did it is a matter of opinion or perspective.  Often the historian must choose between conflicting accounts and identify key points and attitudes.   Interpretation is a tricky business, because what is considered an insignificant or generally accepted new fact may be neither.  Past Imperfect shows how new data leads to constant reinterpretation of the past.  It also shows how discoveries cannot always be taken at face value and what happens if they are.

Past Imperfect

“What’s with Fred?”

“Oh, he probably forgot the bell rotation again.”

That was a fairly common exchange in the copier room.  Two young teachers glanced in the direction of an older figure desperately trotting down the hall and receding into the distance.

Fred Carmichael hadn’t forgotten the rotation.  He knew what bell it was – his free bell, at least for about another ten minutes.  He had to get to his department office to verify a specific date.  If he was right, Pete was about to make an academic fool of himself and snuff out a very successful career.

Fred banked around a corner, hurdled a book bag resting against a wall, and skidded into H-460.  He had a clear path to his desk; his colleagues were all still in class.  He burrowed through the mountain of books and loose papers until he found what he was after.

“Was it May, 1961?  Oh, Jeez….”  That was what he was afraid of.  He retrieved his phone and started to send an emergency message – right below the “NO TEXTING ALLOWED IN THIS BUILDING” sign.

That’s when the bell rang.  All he could send was “STOP!”.  Would Pete get the message – and understand?

*                                              *                                              *

Twentieth Century historians consider the Cuban Missile Crisis the zenith of the Cold War.  The often-repeated scenario tells how John Kennedy discovered the missile installations in Cuba and, with a small group of brilliant advisors, devised a strategy to stare down Nikita Khrushchev and avert nuclear war.  In recent years, however, declassified documents have suggested that events could have easily slipped beyond their control.

One can assume that not every document from the brief but notable Kennedy Presidency has seen the light of day.  In addition to those that the State Department may still deem too sensitive for exposure, there are personal notes and letters that, for various reasons, are not on display in the Presidential library in Massachusetts.

Of course, no secret can remain hidden forever.

*                                              *                                              *

It seemed like Peter Franklin was morphing into a New England Brahman.  He had spent so much time buried in “Camelot” memorabilia that he was starting to say “Cuber” and “Africer”.  He had picked up the gestures, mannerisms, and vocal rhythms so beloved by JFK impersonators.  He was considered an “expert” on those years, although many of his associates thought “fanatic” was a more appropriate label.

”Yeah,” he pontificated.  “That movie gives some truly secondary characters way too much screen time.  They were never in the inner circle.”

The students around the seminar table hung on his every word.  It was as if he had been there and had been an active, central participant.

“Was Khrushchev that much of a bully?” ventured someone at the crowded table.

“I’d say he was more of a clown,” responded another voice.

“Yeah, he’d have been laughable if he didn’t have all those nukes to throw around,” said a third.

Mr. Franklin nodded.  “All three of you are right.  Except I’d throw in one more label.  He was an actor.  He didn’t have anywhere near the nuclear arsenal that Kennedy and the U.S. had.  He just had to leave the impression that he did… Well, there’s the bell.  Next time we’ll look at the Kennedy-Cuba relationship.”

He pronounced it “Cuber”.

The select group of high school seniors filed out as Peter Franklin stuffed DVD’s and two or three volumes decorated with bookmarks into his exploding briefcase.  The kids loved the course.  They even laughed at his jokes.  Life was good.  As he exited he paused to let Fred Carmichael come in.  The two men were old friends; they had been hired the same year and had been fixtures in the History Department for as long as anyone could remember.

“Since the Dawn of Recorded Time” is the way Fred described it.

“May the Force be with you,” said Pete, holding up one hand in a Vulcan salute.

Fred grimaced.

“The gesture is right, but the appropriate Vulcan greeting is ‘Live long and prosper’.  You’re mixing up STAR TREK with that other unmentionable thing.  But I shall accept the intent and reply in the correct fashion.  ‘Peace and long life’.”

“So where are you now?”  asked Pete.

“The formation of the European Union.  And I won’t get beyond that if you don’t let me get set up.  I’ve got to get these people ready for your seminars.”

“Oh, then by all means proceed.”  He bowed and let Fred by. “Do you need any help with that stuff?”

The “stuff” to which he referred included two sets of old roll-down maps and boxes full of old Newsweek magazines, flash drives, and European currencies old as well as new.  Fred believed in the “hands-on” method; it was said that if he had been teaching the Middle Ages, he would have brought a cathedral to class.

Pete had a lighter load and no pending class, so he hung around a bit longer.

“Going anywhere over break?”  he asked. “Europe?  Vulcan, maybe?”

“Nope,” replied Fred, dumping his load on a table.  “Gonna stay home, polish my craft, and sleep in.  What about you?”

“I’m going to Boston,” answered Pete, “to check out the JFK document library.  At least what they’ll let me see.  I want to write something on the Kennedy-Khrushchev Vienna meeting in 1961.  It was sort of a table-setter for  the Missile Crisis in ‘62”.

“Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll get carte blanche.  You’re the best in the business when it comes to sucking up.”

“I am rather good at it, aren’t I?  Well, I must let you get on with Europe.”

And with that, Pete departed, whistling Beethoven’s Ninth.

“Have a good break!  Don’t lift any forbidden documents!”  Fred called after him.

Pete smiled over his shoulder.  “Who?  Me?  I have my sources!”  And with that he disappeared around a corner.

*                                              *                                              *

“So what do you think?  Isn’t this the best pizza this side of the Atlantic?”

The speaker, Chuck Barrone, mumbled the inquiry through a mouthful of thin crust, peppers and cheese.

Pete Franklin didn’t want to argue and chew at the same time.  Besides, it was a given that Chuck knew his eateries, especially little out-of-the-way, mom-and-pop places like this one in Boston.  He liked to “do business” in them.

Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Chuck launched into the matter at hand.

“I think I’ve got a winner for you.”  He patted his coat pocket.  “Remember the Vienna Summit in ’61?  Khrushchev butchered Jack Kennedy and danced all over his corpse.  Even guys in his own administration admitted their golden boy really looked bad.”

Pete smiled.  “You aren’t terribly fond of the “Camelot” crowd, are you?  Makes one wonder why they let someone like you get within forty feet of their document library.”

“I do my job efficiently and quietly,” responded Chuck.  “They didn’t demand a loyalty oath and I certainly didn’t volunteer one.  It jerks my chain that so many people have made a saint out of that incompetent womanizer.  I’m a Republican and proud of it.”

“Aren’t you afraid they’ll trace these document leaks to you?” Pete asked between bites.

“Let them fire me.  I’ll survive.  And the country will be better informed about its heroes.  Besides, I know you’ll be sufficiently vague about your sources.”

“Enough preliminaries,” Pete said abruptly.  “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Chuck removed the envelope from his jacket breast pocket.  “Try not to get sauce on this.  I destroyed the original scans, including those of the Russian translations.”  He slid it across the table.  “Go ahead and read it.  I want to finish this pizza.”

There was a single sheet in the legal envelope.  Pete unfolded it and found an apparently photocopied typed page.  No fancy stationery or watermark.  Just a handwritten “May ‘61” at the top.  He began to read.

I regret that you felt it necessary to play to the cameras, but I suppose I’d do the same were I in your position.  My people think you left me crying in a corner.  I survived the Cuba invasion mess in April, and I’ll get over this ding on my image too.  Now that the bright lights are off of us, here’s what I propose.  You let us keep NATO missiles in Turkey, and we will let you do whatever you want in order to keep Fidel happy.  No promises re: Berlin.  I guess we’ll agree to disagree there.  I’ll send you a note in June detailing our position.  I do have to warn you about one thing.  We have elections next year, and I may have to do what we call “grandstanding” to win votes.  That means I’ll have to make you look like a bad guy, so I can “save the country”.  Were I you, I’d work out my defense strategy in advance.

Aside from getting my butt kicked in public, I enjoyed meeting you.  Someday let’s share politics stories.

(Signed) John F. Kennedy, POTUS

P.S.  Your May Day parade last week was impressive!

“What’s going on here?” thought Pete.  Is JFK agreeing to let Khrushchev put missiles into Cuba?  And it’s one year before the Missile Crisis!

“Holy Moly!” was all he could say.

“I thought you’d like it,” Chuck responded between chews. “It looks like the Missile Crisis was a pre-election ploy, doesn’t it?  Apparently, Khrushchev couldn’t come up with a plausible response short of pushing the nuclear button.  I guess he was too fixated on Berlin.”

“That could be,” Pete said.  “The Wall went up in August.”  He stared at the sheet.  The signature looked real enough.  This was a real game-changer.  Finally, he broke the silence.

“So how much is this going to cost me?”

“Well, considering that, as you say, I could get fired when this goes public, it has to be something to keep me in pizza for an extended period.”

Chuck threw out a figure.

Pete’s eyebrows shot skyward.  “I could buy a Ferrari for that!”

“And when your book stays on the Best-Seller list for three years, you can buy your Ferrari.”

“I don’t have that much in my checking account.”

“So maybe we can arrange an easy payment plan.  I’m not unreasonable.  What do you say?”

After a moment or two of consideration, Pete said, “Deal!” and returned to his temporarily ignored pizza with gusto.

*                                              *                                              *

When classes resumed, Fred Carmichael found his colleague even more ebullient than usual.

“You must have had one heck of a break!  I’ve never thought of Boston as a fun town.  Outside of Fenway Park, that is.”

“My friend, I have won the historians’ lottery.  Let me write out a proposal so I can send it to my agent.  I’ll share it with you when I get it all worked out.”

Fred smiled.  Being married to your work does have one big drawback for people like Pete who live in the Archives.  Their social contacts are limited to publishers and eventually an audience of jealous peers who wish they had beaten him into print.  That wasn’t for Fred, but he felt honored to be Pete’s one preliminary sounding board.

Days passed.  Pete seemed to dedicate every spare minute to typing his manuscript.

“Forgive me for breaking your concentration,” joked Fred.  “But you know, there have been studies.  Staring at that screen all the time isn’t good for you.  You need to get out more.”

Pete didn’t even look up as he replied, “Got a deadline.  And this is hot stuff!”

His publishing agent thought so too.  Whenever Fred saw her at school, she seemed to treat Pete like the second coming of Dan Brown.

Eventually, the final, polished draft was done.  When the galley proofs arrived, Pete decided the time had come to let his friend in on what was certain to be a blockbuster.

“So what do you think?”  Pete asked after handing the summary blurb to his friend and waiting impatiently for him to read it.

Fred was flabbergasted.  He had grown up in the ‘60’s, and Kennedy was his political idol.

“What kind of evidence do you have to back this up?”

“I have a document signed by JFK.  It was buried in the unavailable portion of the Presidential archives.”

“How’d you get it?”

“A friend.”  He paused. “I, -uh, made it worth his while.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Fred commented, shaking his head.  “It does seem to fit, I guess.  But, good lord!  This is one of the most Machiavellian deals I’ve ever heard of.  It sounds like a nuclear-age Bismarck!”

“Yeah, doesn’t it?  It ought to make the headlines and talk shows.  Maybe I’ll get a guest spot on Colbert.”

“Any chance I could see the original document?” asked Fred.

“No problem.  I had it included with the picture inserts.  “I’ve never seen the Russian version, but this should be enough.”  He shuffled pages.  “Here it is.”

“You’re right.  It looks like his writing.  I’ve seen enough Kennedy papers to say that.  But,…wow!  What a shocker!”

“Gotta run,” said Pete, giving his desk a quick once-over.  “Before the book hits Amazon and Barnes and Noble, Julie has arranged for a press conference tomorrow morning.  She’s some kind of agent!  I have to fly to New York today!”  He virtually bounced out the door.

“I’ll cover your class!” Fred called after him.  Then he remembered what he was holding. “Wait!  You left all the proofs!”

“Hold on to them for me!  I can trust you not to publish it yourself!”

And he was gone.

*                                              *                                              *

At the end of the school day, Fred carefully packed Pete’s masterpiece into his briefcase along with an assortment of papers that needed grading.  The grading, unfortunately, would have to come first; he had held onto those essays way to long.  His plan was to get up early and read Pete’s bombshell.

His wife was working late, so Fred slapped together something he called “dinner” and then made his way to his office-workroom.   He pulled out a fist-full of papers, sighed, and plunged into them.  Several hours and papers later, he remembered that he needed to get up early, so he called it a night and went to bed.

He got up in the dark sometime later, tiptoed back to his study, unpacked Pete’s manuscript, and settled into a comfortable chair.

DUEL OF THE NUCLEAR TITANS.  Fred shook his head at the title.  Not exactly a coy understatement.  No doubt the publicist’s contribution.  He began to turn pages.  The 1960 election…, Bay of Pigs fiasco…, Space Race.  Easy reading, but nothing terribly new and exciting.

Then he got to the Vienna Summit.  There was plenty on Khrushchev’s Berlin demands; it was easy to see why people had concluded that the Soviet leader had drowned Kennedy in a tidal wave of bluster.  A little further along he hit the apparently secret note smuggled between delegations.  Yeah, a casual glance suggested it was authentic.  Kennedy was recovering from the abortive Cuban invasion; and for all his finger-wagging and tirades, Khrushchev was beginning to see his young adversary as a quick study and solid politician.

But would JFK really have let the Soviets do whatever they wanted in Cuba?  Would he have let them put nuclear missiles there… and then insisted that they remove them, risking war in the process?

Something just didn’t add up.  Fred read the note over and over.  He even walked away from the manuscript and graded a few more student essays.  His red pen circled misspelling, incorrect names, and bad chronology.  Why can’t kids get their details straight?

When he got back to Pete’s work, his mind was still mentally reeling from what he considered sloppy scholarship.  He stared at the Kennedy note.  What a difference!  At least it was smooth and accurate.


At the top Kennedy had written “May ‘61”.  The Vienna Summit wasn’t in May.  It was in June.  Could that just be the President’s inadvertent slip?  That seemed unlikely, given the reference to June later in the text.  And the “P.S.” was pretty specific regarding the May Day parade.  The dates were just wrong.  They cast serious doubt as to the authenticity of the entire note, and that note’s “revelations” were the cornerstone of the book.

Fred was sure that Pete would have realized there were problems if he hadn’t let himself be goaded into becoming a publicity juggernaut.  Was there anything he could do at this stage to keep his friend from committing academic suicide?

A glance at his clock showed that he had lingered over the proofs longer than anticipated.  He didn’t have an 8:00 class, but he had promised to cover his friend’s 9:00.  He was cutting even that pretty close.

After the shortest shower he had ever taken – Fred had gotten wetter in rain storms – he grabbed a shirt and tie that maybe matched.  A hasty “love-you” aimed in his wife’s general direction, and he was out the door.

His car stayed at or below the speed limit all the way to school.  And he knew not to try to text and drive.  The squad cars prowled all over this route.  He was glad to see that the sacred Carmichael parking space was still available in the school lot; there was no guarantee of that.  He parked, checked the time, and took off in the direction of the classroom building.

Fred barely slowed down in the hallway.  He nodded toward two younger colleagues in the copier room but didn’t wait for an acknowledgement.  He got to his desk in the vacant department office and unearthed a favorite reference book.  (Mr. Carmichael, it was said, didn’t trust the Internet.)  Then he verified the “June 1961” Summit date.  As the minutes of his free bell ticked away, he got off the one-word message he hoped Pete would understand:  “STOP!”

*                                              *                                              *

*                                              *                                              *

There the manuscript ended.

It was very old, on the order of at least five thousand years according to scans.  Since actual material documents – they were called “paper” – from this age were rare, archaeologists had been eager to get at it.  After an extended and detailed analysis, their report was complete.

“So, what have we got?” inquired Commander Almane.  His antennae arched forward in anticipation.

Chief Analyst Virt brightened the viewscreen; one of his chitinous appendages pointed to the images coming into view.

“As close as we can tell, it’s some kind of political disagreement.  This was a very violent period, and it looks like one leader was desperately worried about his future.”

“How can you tell?” Almane leaned still closer to the screen to see the evidence.

“If we understand the idiom correctly, he seemed extremely interested in procreation.  One individual accuses him of being a ‘womanizer’”.

“Meaning what?”

Virt backed away slightly.  How could he say this politely?

“Uh… that would be a male extremely motivated by reproduction.  I surmise that he needed to breed successors to fend off challenges to his rule.”

“You said there was some kind of debate or conflict, didn’t you?”

“Apparently.  It’s kind of odd.  One individual seems to have gotten upset over trivia.  Not about what two political leaders actually said but the day on which they said it.  Our research suggests that the dates over which they are arguing aren’t that far apart.”

“Probably some kind of clerical fetish,” offered Almane.  “Didn’t someone say there were youth instructors involved?  Those people can get so fixated on details that they lay eggs.”

Virt nodded, acknowledging his superior’s humorous remark. “Indeed” he responded.  “So, anyway… we conclude that the procreation-minded ruler was being friendly with an adversary in search of some later advantage.  Possibly he wanted to arrange for additional females.  One wonders why such things are worth reporting.”

Almane nodded and made a dismissive gesture.  “Thank you, Chief.  Who knows?  Someday someone might find details like these significant.”

Virt backed away, waved an appendage gracefully, and was gone.


  1. Should Pete have accepted, and paid for, Chuck’s “document”?  How could he justify this conduct?
  2. If Chuck knowingly sold Pete a fake document, it clearly represents a lapse in ethics. Does Pete have a legal recourse to get back at him, or does he have to accept the incident as a “life lesson” and avoid publicizing it?
  3. Why would Pete’s agent think that a preliminary news conference, tied to the release of his book, was appropriate and desirable?
  4. Suppose that Fred had not been on time to avert the news conference, or that Pete had been unable to decipher the meaning of the one-word message. What would have been the aftermath of either situation?
  5. The future archaeologists don’t have the same interests or concerns in their world that Fred and Pete have in theirs. Matters that the two societies consider significant vary appreciably.  What are those differences, and what would account for them?
  6. The manuscript ends abruptly, in the middle of the action. Finish Fred and Pete’s story.

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